Your View: Homicide is the culmination of festering issues

Your View: Homicide is the culmination of festering issues

By Leslie Zupan, Keil Gentry, Peter Prahar, Heidi Ford, Donna Reuss; Board members, West Old Town Citizens Association (File photo)

To the editor:
The recent homicide of Shakkan Elliot-Tibbs at the Andrew Adkins public housing project one block from the Braddock Road Metro station is a tragedy for his family and friends. But in a sense it was also a death foretold.

For 18 months, neighbors in West Old Town have been calling police to report gunshots — sometimes on successive nights. The level and frequency of gunplay now exceeds anything heard in this neighborhood and borders on unprecedented. Yet the police department’s response until now has been inadequate.

Even at last week’s overflow community meeting, Alexandria police claimed there was no change in the level of shots fired reports between 2014 and 2015. The problem, however, started in 2014 and shows no improvement since then.

Neighbors are hearing gunfire and calling in reports in real time, just as police urge. The Alexandria eNews press releases about the possibility of firecrackers the week before the murder discouraged and annoyed many. West Old Town has a large contingent of military personnel who understand firearms and know the distinctive sound. Callers also are troubled by omissions and inconsistencies in the police’s reports of these incidents.

The neighborhood is fed up with excuses. Police Chief Earl Cook’s hastily organized community walk the week before the murder was simply a PR effort in the eyes of many here. It is repugnant to tell residents that when victims and perpetrators know each other, there’s nothing to worry about — as though bullets don’t have the potential to go astray and hit bystanders, as recently happened in Southeast D.C.

Community policing as successfully practiced in this area in the past has atrophied and must be beefed up again. True community policing requires giving officers the time and resources to intimately know the neighborhood and its residents, instilling familiarity and trust and thereby gaining strategic intelligence about community dynamics. Instead, the number of officers in the community policing program has dwindled over the years and law enforcement
officers are routinely pulled out for other duties elsewhere. What the community is given instead are a few days of ostentatious police car patrols, usually immediately before or after public meetings, which then fade away.

City council and the ARHA board are not off the hook either. The concentration of public housing around the Braddock Road Metro station and council’s retreat from a scattered-site policy means city leaders are deliberately perpetuating socio-architectural magnets for bad behavior. With new construction around the Metro station, there are more “eyes on the street” than ever, but what has been gained? There have been a number of homicides at Adkins and its environs in recent years.

Council has also given ARHA carte blanche to expand its holdings within the Braddock Road Metro area, with the acquisition of new properties like Pendleton Park, where last year police were witnessed in broad daylight bearing drawn shotguns. There has also been construction of massive new public housing buildings along U.S. Route 1, which may soon include the otherwise peaceful Ramsay Homes.

ARHA CEO Roy Priest has recently said that conditions at Jefferson Village — now Princess Square — had been improved by re-tenanting — evictions — thus confirming that ARHA and its board are not powerless with regard to the peace and quietude of its properties. But at Monday night’s meeting we heard an ARHA resident criticize the authority’s management for its unresponsiveness to her concerns.

In the last 30 years, the West Old Town Citizens Association has worked more closely with and been more supportive of the police department than almost any other civic group in Alexandria. Now we ask for new approaches and fresh thinking. The police need to restore real community policing, explore technology such as security cameras, establish neighborhood watches in ARHA developments, and city council and ARHA must return to the scattered public housing strategy when ARHA properties come up for redevelopment in the next few years.